Comic Book Talk: Ghost Rider #1-#27 (1990-)

GR-1The 90’s gets a bad rap when it comes to comic books. The 60’s and 70’s established many of the characters and ongoing books that readers are familiar with while the 80’s featured countless classic story arcs and famous runs on big name comics. Fast forward to the modern day and the likes of Marvel and DC are enjoying more exposure than ever and, as befits the age we live in, the comics themselves enjoy slick presentation and the individual titles are far more integrated into the main ‘universe'(s) with frequent crossovers and major ‘events’.

By contrast, the 90’s is often cited as the decade of forgettable storytelling, uninspiring ideas and a lack of anything “big”. Thing is though, while many of the mainline books suffered a period of stagnation in the 1990’s, it simply isn’t true to claim that the decade as a whole is worth forgetting about because there were some fantastic comics. Case in point, the 1990 Ghost Rider reboot which is one of my favourite runs of any comic to date.

The powers of the Ghost Rider are picked up by new lead character, Dan Ketch, and he struggles to cope with the Rider’s furious need for vengeance as well as his own personal life which begins to spin out of control once he begins moonlighting as GR. This is a different Ghost Rider to the original Johnny Blaze incarnation and so this run had the freedom to go its own way while posing numerous questions and mysteries regarding the Ghost Rider.

I’m only going to talk about the first 27 issues here in this post because from there on, the Sons of Midnight crossover project began and I haven’t read any further since I need to track down some more comics to fill in the gaps in my collection. Those 27 issues however are pure dynamite. This is a dark book that doesn’t shy away from violence, blood and innocent death. A core of recurring, brand-new villains are also established for Ghost Rider to contend with and while they don’t exactly have the most dynamic of personalities between them, the psychotic brutality of their actions and the joy they extract from killing, makes them fascinating adverseries for GR to face off against.

Blackout is a crazed, sharp-toothed killer that enjoys ripping people’s throats out, Deathwatch is an evil businessman that cracks necks and appears to draw energy from the death of his victims and Zodiac is a sick serial killer that continually manages to escape the vengeful wrath of Ghost Rider. This trio of villains are collectively behind a wave of violent murders and disappearances in the Forest Hills area of Queens, New York. Ghost Rider might be a powerhouse of a character with high immunity to damage but he struggles to permanently put these sickos down. Deathwatch for example hides behind the persona of a respectable businessman and pulls the strings from the shadows. Blackout on the other hand deduces GR’s identity and makes things personal, striking out at those close to Dan Ketch. He even attacks the hospital and tears the throat out of Ketch’s comatose sister! You end up really despising these villains and rooting for Ghost Rider as he takes on a sort-of anti-hero role, beating the shit out of bad guys and not being constrained by the morality codes that the likes of Spiderman and the Avengers abide by. As I said before, this is a dark book.

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During these 27 issues, Ghost Rider also encounters Dr. Strange, teams up with The Punisher to take on Flag Smasher and battles the Brood alongside the X-Men. Mephisto makes an appearance, Ghost Rider has his first battle with Scarecrow and Johnny Blaze himself even shows up but the motive for his return isn’t what you might expect.

The thing that really makes this run of Ghost Rider so special is the creative team behind it. After reading some truly woeful Spiderman arcs in the late 90’s from Howard Mackie, I didn’t ever expect to praise the same guy for his writing but here, it is superb. The human side of Dan Ketch and the effect that his actions as Ghost Rider have on the supporting cast is as integral to the ongoing plot as are the villains that refuse to give up and die and Mackie does a great job of striking a balance between them. Better yet is the artwork which is absolutely stunning in that raw, detailed style that only comics from the 80’s and early 90’s could deliver before presentation as a whole moved to another level and computer work sucked some of the soul and purity from the pages.

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Javier Saltares kicks things off before being replaced by regular artist, Mark Texeira (also known as simply ‘TEX’). Both men really bring the book to life with grim, brooding artwork but Texeira in particular is on another level. Ron Wagner steps in from time-to-time too and honestly, I rate him almost as highly as Texeira. There really is no weak link in the art department for these opening 27 issues.

Overall, I cannot recommend this volume of Ghost Rider enough. I don’t disagree that the 90’s served up some real duds in the comic book arena but in my experience, it is the B-Tier characters and books that give the decade some appeal. In particular, I love the dark characters and horror themes that Marvel saw fit to push out in the early 90’s; the 1990 reboot of Ghost Rider being a front-runner (or should that be ‘rider’?). It remains to be seen whether the rest of the run manages to uphold the same quality and thrilling reading but I have high hopes.

Comic Book Talk: The Amazing Spiderman – New Ways To Die [ASM #568-573]

The six-part “New Ways To Die” storyline in Amazing Spiderman is sort of a bookmark for me as this is when I stopped following Marvel’s most famous hero and ceased consuming Marvel comics in general. I’d simply gotten burnt out on the massive crossovers and wasn’t too crazy about some of the things that had happened in the Marvel universe. Sometimes I have a peek at some of the events that have happened since 2008 and I have to say that I won’t be returning to the fold any time soon.

In any case, New Ways To Die was a nice place to conclude. I was genuinely enjoying the Brand New Day arc that returned the tone of Amazing to that of the 60’s/70’s where Peter Parker’s life wasn’t so dark, miserable and tied-in with the rest of the Marvel universe. It allowed for some much-loved support characters such as Betty Brant, Ben Ulrich and Harry Osborn to return. BND also saw the return of simpler stories while nurturing some ongoing plot threads in the background.

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New Ways To Die sees the Thunderbolts, led by Norman Osborn, travel to New York to take down Spiderman, who is being implicated in a series of murders – killings that have all featured one of his spider tracer devices at the scene of the crime. Behind the scenes, it is candidate for the mayor’s office, Randall Crowne, who brings in Osborn and his team to eliminate Spiderman in the interests of boosting his election campaign. Dexter Bennet of the DB newspaper (formerly the Daily Bugle) is on smear duties, putting the Spiderman serial killer story on the front pages at Crowne’s behest.

All of this is just the backdrop and part of the ongoing Brand New Day storyline as are the appearances of Goblin-esque ‘Menace’ who has notable encounters with Spiderman and the OG Goblin of them all, Osborn.

The real attractions of this storyline are Osborn being as evil and calculating as ever and the emergence of a brand-new symbiote. Eddie Brock – the original Venom – is now trying to live out his final days as a cancer sufferer, helping a New York food shelter in order to make amends for his actions as a supervillain. Unfortunately, the (then) current Venom – Mac Gargan – encounters Brock at the shelter when hunting Spiderman and Eddie suddenly transforms into a new white-coloured symbiote, suitably dubbed Anti Venom. It was great to see Brock as a symbiote again and I really liked the design of Anti Venom. For me, there was only ever one Venom and the Mac Gargan incarnation of the character was something I never truly warmed to.

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Another major treat throughout this six issue run was John Romita Jr’s superb artwork. I have always been a big fan of J.R. Jr ever since first seeing his work on Spiderman in the 90’s and it looks better and better as the years pass. I know many don’t agree but I love his take on the symbiotes with their extending limbs, huge demonic mouths and almost comical abilities so it was a joy to see him illustrate the debut of Anti Venom. Heck, I didn’t even really mind Gargan when drawn in his style.

The battles are illustrated superbly and the interactions between Spiderman and Norman Osborn are fantastic, especially seeing as how Osborn looks and sounds as evil as ever here. He has brought the Thunderbolts in for a reason but really, he just wants to get at Spiderman himself. As a result of BND, Norman no longer knows Spiderman’s secret identity and this allows for a little bit of cat and mouse between him, Peter and Peter’s alter ego.

Overall, this was a very fun run of Amazing Spiderman that continued the Brand New Day trend of injecting much-needed life and raw entertainment into the book. The artwork is first class and Anti Venom was an excellent debut character that put Eddie Brock back in the picture at long last. Upon re-reading these issues, I’m even tempted to pick up some more Amazing from this era and perhaps even re-acquire the issues that led up to New Ways To Die from the very start of Brand New Day. That’s the power of a good comic book.